The Morrison government has expanded the groups of workers covered by its new close contact isolation rules — including teachers and childcare workers — following a National Cabinet meeting held on Thursday.
The main issues on the agenda were students’ return to school and the interlinked problem of workers furloughed due to infection or close contact with a person with COVID-19, and supply chain disruptions.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison restated that the government’s current strategy for managing the current outbreak — which was shaping its decision-making — was not to stop people from getting the virus, but to “protect our hospitals and keep our society and economy functioning as we ride this latest wave of Omicron”.
Stopping the spread of the virus “is not a realistic objective,” Morrison said, adding “that is not something we are trying to achieve”.
The Prime Minister said the government intends for most schools to return to in-person learning this month, despite decisions taken by South Australia and Queensland to delay this return.
As of Thursday, most SA school children will face a two-week delay in returning to face-to-face learning in the classroom.
The SA government has announced that schools will reopen on January 31 for children of essential workers.
The state follows Queensland in delaying the start of in-person learning.
On Sunday, Queensland premier Annastacia Palaszczuk announced changes to the return to school date for the state’s primary and high school students to February 7, because projections suggested Queensland would reach the Omicron peak in the last week in January.
At Thursday’s meeting, Treasury advised National Cabinet that up to 10% of the workforce could be forced out because they have the virus or are a close contact.
“That’s going to have an inevitable impact on the workforce and that has to be managed,” Morrison said.
The prime minister said that an additional 5% in absenteeism could be added to the workforce if schools don’t reopen.
“It is absolutely essential for schools to go back safely and remain safely open if we are not going to see any further exacerbation of the workforce challenges we are currently facing,” Morrison said.
He said while he understood why Queensland and South Australia had chosen to delay the start of the school year to cope with Omicron outbreaks, the federal government was committed to its definition of childcare and schools as “essential” and that they should be “first to open and last to close wherever possible and face-to-face learning prioritised.”
Changes to close contact isolation rules for workers
Morrison also announced the government was extending the net of people who, after being designated a close contact, would be allowed to return to work without isolating once they return a negative RAT result.
The expansion of the close contact rules will extend to multiple industries including transport, freight and logistics employees, food logistics, all healthcare and support, emergency services including law enforcement, correctional services, energy resources and water, waste management, food, beverage and other critical good supplies (but not hospitality), telecommunication, data, broadcasting and media.
It will also extend to education and childcare.
This follows Australia’s leading medical advisory group earlier this week recommending that food and grocery workers return to work after being a close contact of a positive COVID-19 case, provided they then return a negative rapid test.
Morrison said that despite recent criticism from unions and industry groups, who have said the government failed to factor worker safety into their plans, he had heard good feedback on changes to close contact rules as they apply to essential workers.
“We are already getting feedback on those measures, particularly in the supermarket distribution systems are already having a positive impact,” he said.
Increase in hours international students are able to work
Morrison also noted that the decision to increase the hours international students would be eligible to work — up to 40 hours a fortnight — had been made on Wednesday.
This decision was made as a way to alleviate pressure on sectors hardest hit by the virus by expanding the available net of workers.
Morrison also announced 10 free rapid antigen tests will be available for concession cardholders from pharmacies from January 24.